By Ron Armstead
Washington, D.C. President Obama at the recent White House Congressional Medal of Honor (CMOH) ceremony said, “no nation is perfect, but here in America, we confront our imperfections and face a sometimes painful past, including the truth that some of those soldiers fought and died for a country that did not always see them as equal…”
The ceremony marked the culmination of a Pentagon review and Congressional legislative mandate in 2002, the result of which concluded that only one Black had been denied.
Despite the fact, that Congressional members such as New York Senator Charles Schumer have fought long and hard to honor Sgt. Henry Johnson’s heroism during World War I with the Medal of Honor, Schumer recently saying, “the federal government should not wait another day to honor Sgt. Johnson with the Medal of Honor.”
While, in 1942, U.S. Rep. John Dingell of Michigan (father of retiring John Dingell, Jr.) and Senator James Mead of New York submitted a bill authorizing FDR to give Seaman Dorie Miller the Medal of Honor. And over the past several years Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Democrat of Texas with the support of the Congressional Black Caucus, and others, have filed legislation to waive the statute of limitations so that Miller could receive the Medal of Honor.
And, the latest, but by no means the last, the family of the late First Sgt. Alwyn Cashe, who served in Iraq was recommended by one of his commanding officers, and is ironically buried in Sanford, Florida, continues fighting unabated for the Medal of Honor.
By example, Sgt. Cashe died from burns over 90% of his body suffered in Iraq, while rescuing half-dozen soldiers from a burning Bradley fighting vehicle. His actions earned him a Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and a posthumous Silver Star. However, C. Douglas Sterner, a national military historian, and expert on military awards proclaimed Cashe “had become the perfect example of a CMOH wrongfully denied.”
While several military generals, including Lt. Gen. William Webster, declared in his estimation, SFC. Cashe had joined the ranks of previous CMOH recipients on that fateful day.
No Blacks received the CMOH during World War I and World War II, until Cpl. Freddie Stowers, who shortly after his death in WWI was recommended. However, it took 73 years after he was killed-in-action before President George H.W. Bush posthumously recognized him in April of 1991 at the White House.
And, again, in 1997 President William Clinton awarded seven Black World War II veterans (six posthumously) with only one Lt. Vernon Baker, 77 years old still alive.
Fortunately, if it were not for Gen. Colin Powell, Chief of Staff’s request and independent review by Shaw University the President Clinton WWII CMOH awards ceremony at the White House, which he attended, would not have happened.
Although President George W. Bush awarded the civilian equivalent to the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal after being sheparded through the House by Rep. Charles Rangel, Democrat of New York, and the Montford Point Marines being awarded the Congressional Gold Medal with President Obama’s signing of the bill orchestrated by Rep. Corrine Brown, Democrat of Florida, these are the only two special occasions in which a larger number of living individuals were collectively and publically recognized at an official U.S. Capitol ceremony in 2007 and 2012, in Washington, DC. This fact can’t be minimized, nor its socio-psychological and political significance underestimated.
But, I also say, that nobody really knows exactly why it took 57 years for Army Sgt. Cornelius Charlton, who was awarded the CMOH in 1952, to become the only Black CMOH recipient from the Korean War buried in Arlington National Cemetery. But, these are only a few examples of an ongoing problem.
Thus, we can compile an impressive list of names to document the past 20th century’s backlog of denials to stimulate a national conversation about military discrimination, bias, research and the lack of national recognition, or advocacy before the highest Black elected officials in the land, and now the Commander-in-Chief Barrack Obama.
During the Vietnam War, no Blacks who served with the U.S. Marine Corps became the recipient of the CMOH, and lived to tell about it. And equally important, in comparing the awarding timeline of Army Staff Sgt. Melvin Morris, 40 years after his service in South Vietnam, some say, nothing much has changed since Sgt. William Carney, Massachusetts 54th Volunteer Infantry was awarded the CMOH approximately 40 years after the Battle of Fort Wagner, SC, 1863, during the Civil War.
He is the first Black thus so awarded. While prior to Sgt. Morris, the last Black awardee was Cpl. Andrew Jackson Smith of the Massachusetts 55th Volunteer Infantry, who also served during the Civil War, and was nominated, but denied by the Army. Currently, Smith holds the record for the longest time between the actual date of action the Battle of Honey Hill, SC, 1864, and the awarding of the CMOH, approximately 137 years later on the last day of the Clinton Administration in 2001.
Moreover, the problem of awarding the Medal of Honor and national recognition dates back approximately two centuries to the Civil War of the 19th century, when President Lincoln commissioned it. Since that time there have been 3,487 recipients, including 88 Blacks. However, the problem has persisted throughout the 20th century, and up until the 21st century involving denials due to discrimination, or bias, and next delayed recognition.
A further illustration is the late William Raspberry’s column ‘Two Heroes, No Medals of Honor,’ (1988) examining two Black war heroes quest for posthumous CMOHs: Sgt. Henry Johnson, a WWI infantryman from Albany, New York, and Seaman Dorius ‘Dorie’ Miller, a WWII hero from Waco, Texas. The column cited, although the military services, while not discounting their heroism, have steadfastly refused to go along with any attempts to grant Johnson and Miller the Medal of Honor.
While countering at the same time, that although no Black soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I, approximately 50 Black soldiers were awarded the DSC, the Army’s second highest award for valor in combat, for their extraordinary heroism in WWI. But, according to the late Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, an African American intellectual, a secret communiqué concerning Black troops sent to the French military by Gen. John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe indicates the extent of pervasive military discrimination, or bias – “we must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them, or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service.
We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans” – dated August 7, 1918.
As we commend President Obama for bestowing the 24 CMOH awards, as a result of the Pentagon review and Congressional action much more remains to be done. Needless to say, Congressional members such as Sen. Charles Schumer, Reps. Charles Rangel, Corrine Brown, Eddie Bernice Johnson and others, and a host of Black service member families are continuing their ongoing campaigns for justice.
While we are really disappointed that the entire 20th century wasn’t reviewed given that the Pentagon set the bar at the DSC for the assessment of discrimination, and given that the military’s reputation for providing a level-playing field, or less-discriminatory environment than civilian society over the past many decades was at stake, or on the line.
Lastly, one can only imagine what will be revealed in 2014, the beginning of the 100th anniversary of World War I, known as ‘the War to End all Wars,’ particularly the new scholarly research examining the role and return of WWI Black soldiers from overseas, and what lessons can be learnt from their experiences in dealing with widespread discrimination, bias and violence.
Again, I ask, who will speak for them, or us?
Ron Armstead serves as Executive Director for the Congressional Black Caucus Veterans Braintrust, and is a past consultant to the late Secretary Jesse Brown’s Veterans Administration’s Advisory Committee on Minority Veterans. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his web site atwww.veteransbraintrustonline.